The call for Kofi Annan's resignation has gotten louder and louder as the conservative media flogs the overblown oil-for-food scandal. But should liberals be calling for Annan to go -- on wholly different grounds? Prospect senior correspondent Michael Steinberger argues the case against Annan, while Nation UN correspondent Ian Williams, author of The UN for Beginners, takes the defense.

This is the first of three parts. The second round will appear on Wednesday.

Michael Steinberger

Your article in The Nation makes an irrefutable case that some on the right are using the oil-for-food scandal to try to destroy U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and are undeterred by the lack of concrete evidence against him. This is the way conservatives operate; they create their own reality, and, if the facts don't quite fit, they don't much care. But what I found most interesting about the article was your non-defense of Annan; in a 2,500-word article decrying the assault on the secretary-general, you offer not one word in praise of him. But then, there isn't much to praise about Annan; he has been a truly horrible secretary-general; as both a matter of principle and smart politics, we liberals should be the ones demanding his resignation.

I'll get to the politics tomorrow; today, the principled reason for wanting Annan gone.

The oil-for-scandal imbroglio is but one in a series of scandals and debacles that have befallen the United Nations during Annan's tenure. At this point, there is nothing William Safire, Claudia Rossett, or the gasbags at FOX News Channel can say that will do more to discredit the organization than will Annan's continued presence on the 38th floor. Knowing what we now know of his conduct during the Rwanda catastrophe -- criminally negligent would be an apt description -- it is clear Annan should never have been elected to the top job, and the same lethal combination of ineptitude and arrogance he displayed then has characterized his eight years as secretary-general.

Consider what we've seen in just the last few months:

• The oil-for-food scandal: The release of the audits last week prove that, at the very least, the oil-for-food program was mismanaged on an epic scale. You no doubt saw the remarkable interview with Mark Malloch Brown in last week's Financial Times; his remarks firmly put to rest the notion that this is a phantom scandal cooked up by right-wing ideologues, and he clearly indicates that the most damning revelations are yet to come.

• Genocide in Darfur: Yet another genocide takes place on Annan's watch, and, once again, he is slow to react and dismayingly equivocal when he finally does chime in.

• Sexual abuse in Congo: We learned in December that there have been 150 cases of sexual abuse involving U.N. peacekeepers in Congo; most of the victims were teenage girls. A local rebel leader was quoted in The Times of London as telling one U.N. official that the peacekeepers would be remembered in Congo for “running after little girls.”

• Whitewashing within the Secretariat: Two senior aides to Annan were accused of sexual harassment (one was also accused of favoritism); in both instances, Annan short-circuited the investigative process and simply exonerated the two men, nearly prompting a mutiny among U.N. staff.

What exactly are we -- liberals -- circling the wagons to defend here? Defending Annan is not the same thing as defending the United Nations; indeed, to defend Annan at this point is to defend someone whose mismanagement has done grievous harm to the United Nations and to the cause of liberal internationalism. Obviously, the United Nations is a sprawling organization employing tens of thousands of people, but Annan has proven beyond any doubt that he is incapable of providing the competent, accountable leadership the United Nations so badly needs. Its credibility has never been lower; although Annan has only two years left in his term, for the good of the United Nations, he must be given his gold watch now.

Ian Williams

The reasons you produce aren't valid in themselves. Over Darfur, Kofi Annan has been far stronger than his predecessor was about Bosnia or, indeed, Rwanda -- to which, of course, Annan was not unconnected himself. Annan has gone way beyond normal diplomatic protocol in chiding Khartoum and calling for international action. The U.N. reports have been unequivocal in their condemnation of Sudanese government behavior. But in the end, it was the United States that blinked and went to Khartoum with carrots rather than sticks. Just as in Rwanda, if the big powers persist in speaking very loudly while carrying a very small and light stick, it is not the U.N.'s fault -- though it's always been used as a scapegoat.

Indeed, Annan had been working hard on talking the rhetoric of "never again" and implementing structures for genuine humanitarian intervention before that became Tony Blair's and George W. Bush's retrospective excuse. The campaign against Annan has derailed that further.

On the oil-for-food issue, I rather suspect that Mark Malloch Brown, a canny operator, is trying to throw something to the wolves. The audit reports are pettifogging accountants' quibbles about mismanagement that come nowhere near the scale of the alleged "Greatest Financial Scandal in the History of the Universe" -- and, incidentally, the managers' rebuttals and answers were not made public.

It does call into question Annan's judgment in naming Paul Volcker, who seems to be all too sensitive to the conservative echo chamber and not totally aware of how things are done, to head the independent inquiry. When he said that there was a strong supposition of "monkey business" on the part of the former head of the oil-for-food program, perhaps he should have mentioned that his inquiry had not even got round to interviewing the accused.

Whatever his final report says, no matter how many orders of magnitude less than the FOX-pack claimed, the United Nations and the oil-for-food program will be deemed guilty by those who started the campaign.

The irony of all this is that Kofi Annan was the American choice. Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton threw Boutros Boutros-Ghali to exactly the same set of wolves in order to make way for Annan.

A further irony is that one of the reasons for their attacks on Annan is his success in walking the diplomatic tightrope strung between insufferable American behavior and the U.N.'s genuine need to engage with Washington and to maintain a prestigious profile with the American public. All U.N. secretaries-general have had to pander to the great powers. Annan was left with only one to pander to.

Annan deserves our support against the hounds of FOX, because their attacks are irrational in their form -- and profoundly reactionary in their substance. They are not attacking Annan; they are attacking any form of multilateralism, whether the Land Mine Treaty, non-proliferation, the International Criminal Court, or even the Geneva Conventions (all of which he has publicly supported). They were not even attacking the oil-for-food program; they were attacking an organization that dared to say no -- or, at least, refused to say yes -- to Bush's war on Iraq.

This is the first of three parts. The second round will appear on Wednesday.

Michael Steinberger is a Prospect senior correspondent. Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent and author of The UN for Beginners and Deserter: George Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans, and His Past.